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Rage and Redemption: Reading the Life Story of a Mexican Marketing Woman

Author(s): Ruth Behar


Source: Feminist Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, Speaking for Others/Speaking for Self: Women of
Color (Summer, 1990), pp. 223-258
Published by: Feminist Studies, Inc.
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RAGE AND REDEMPTION:
READING THE LIFE STORY OF A
MEXICAN MARKETING WOMAN
RUTH BEHAR
In recent
years,
the life
history,
as a cultural text and a form of
writing,
has come under critical
scrutiny
from a wide
range
of
psy-
chological, phenomenological,
hermeneutic,
and feminist
perspec-
tives.'
Widely ranging
as these works
are,
they converge
in their
view of the field of life
history
as one of unrealized
potential,
what
James
M. Freeman and David L. Krantz have called "the unful-
filled
promise
of life histories." In the words of Freeman and
Krantz,
which are the words of
many
who have examined life his-
tories,
the
promise
of life histories has not been fulfilled because of
the
tendency
"to force life histories into a Procrustean bed of con-
ventional social science
principles.
... If there is a
promise,
it is in
evolving
new standards and
perspectives
in which life histories
can be more
appropriately interpreted
and
analyzed
on their own
terms."
Although
the task of
evolving
new standards and
perspec-
tives is easier said than
done,
one
key component suggested by
Freeman and Krantz must
certainly
be for life
history
studies to
evenly integrate
"an
adequate theory
with a
comprehensive
nar-
rative that
brings
to life the narrator as a
person."2 Following
their
lead
here,
I want to
explore
new
ways
in which to articulate the
interplay
between
theory
and narrative in life
history writing,
so
as to start
working
on
fulfilling
the
promise
of an
enterprise
that
continues to
interest,
challenge,
and trouble so
many
of us in
cultural,
literary,
and feminist studies.
READING AND WRITING LIFE HISTORIES
The
anthropological
life
history,
as an
approach
that assumes an
eventual written
product,
offers a
paradox
to the
anthropologist
as
Feminist Studies
16,
no. 2
(Summer 1990).
o 1990
by
Feminist
Studies,
Inc.
223
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224 Ruth Behar
author. On the one
hand,
there is the desire and
temptation
to
leave the account
wholly
in the native
voice,
in imitation of the
literary autobiography
that it is
not;
on the other
hand,
there is the
anthropological imperative
to
place
the account in a
theoretical/
cultural
context,
to
provide
some sort of
background, analysis,
commentary,
or
interpretation,
so as to mediate between the reali-
ty
of a life lived and inscribed elsewhere but
wedged
between
book covers and read here. In
performing
this delicate act of
mediation,
the
anthropologist
is
obliged
to let the reader
know,
somewhere,
most
frequently
on the
margins
of the text in a
preface
of
afterword,
just
what the
micropolitics
of the situation
was in which the life
history
was obtained and the
ways
in which
the
anthropologist
was
personally
involved
in,
and even trans-
formed
by,
the intense one-to-one
relationship
of
telling
and listen-
ing.
Torn between these
voices,
the life historian/author
usually
settles for a
segregated,
often
jarring
combination of the three - the
native
voice,
the
personal
"I was there"
voice,
and the authoritative
voice of the
ethnographer.
The difficulties inherent in
making
music out of these three "voices" or "discordant
allegorical
registers"3
also
pose
the
key challenge. By mediating
between,
or
counterpointing,
different
linguistic tropes
or
registers,
the
ethnog-
rapher
can
potentially
create a text that is as much an account of a
person's history
as it is an account of how such a
history
is con-
stituted in and
through
narrative-the native's life
story
narrative
and the life historian's
telling
of that narrative. A life
history
nar-
rative can set the
stage
for a double
telling,
in which both the
native and the
anthropologist,
side
by
side,
act as
narrators,
readers,
and commentators.
As a
problematic genre,
the life
history
narrative invites critical
reflection as
part
of the current
anthropological project
to rethink
and refashion
ethnographic representation.4
There are two direc-
tions in which I think it would be
promising
to take the
genre
of
life
history.
The first focuses on the "life"
part
of the
equation,
mov-
ing
toward an elaboration of the
concept
of the actor as
engaged
in
the
meaningful
creation of a life world. The second involves look-
ing
at the
"history" part
of the
equation, moving
toward an elabora-
tion of the
relationship
between
history
and its textual
representa-
tion,
and
looking
at
history
as
story.
I call this work a life
story
rather than a life
history
to
emphasize
the fictions of self-
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Ruth Behar 225
representation,
the
ways
in which a life is made in the
telling
and
"an
ordered
past imposed by
a
present personality upon
a dis-
ordered life."5
As
Sherry
Ortner
points
out,
there has been an
overwhelming
tendency
in
anthropological
accounts to
spotlight
the
"thingness"
or
objectivity
of social forms once
created,
in the
process displac-
ing
the actor's
part
in
worldmaking. Anthropologists
need to
forge,
she
suggests,
more
imaginative
tools based in a
theory
of
practice
in
order not
only
to
reinsert,
but
centrally place (or re-place),
the actor
in their accounts of other histories and cultures.
"History,"
in
Ortner's
words,
"is not
simply something
that
happens
to
people,
but
something they
make."6 Elsewhere,
as a
coauthor,
she notes the
importance
of
viewing symbols-and gender symbols,
in
particu-
lar
-
not as
inherently meaningful
but as invested with
meaning by
social actors.7
An actor-centered
practice approach
would seem to be an ob-
vious
starting point
for life
history.
Rather than
looking
at social
and cultural
systems solely
as
they impinge
on a
life,
shape
it,
and
turn it into an
object,
a life
history
should allow one to see how an
actor makes
culturally meaningful history,
how
history
is
pro-
duced in action and in the actor's
retrospective
reflections on that
action. A life
history
narrative should allow one to see the
subjec-
tive
mapping
of
experience,
the
working
out of a culture and a
social
system
that is often obscured in a
typified
account.
Ironically, many
life
histories,
despite
the fact that
they
focus on
individual
actors,
fail to do
just
this. The
problem
lies
in the nature
of the frame that the
ethnographer
feels called
upon
to
produce
to
lend
weight, meaning,
and credence to the native's words. The
purpose
of such a frame
is,
too
often,
to show
that,
although
the
account bears the
signature
of a
single
actor,
it
ultimately
is
repre-
sentative
of,
undersigned by,
some
larger
social
whole.
Thus Mar-
jorie
Shostak enlists
Nisa,
the articulate and
highly intelligent
!Kung
woman who is the
subject
of her life
history,
to
metonymi-
cally represent
women in
!Kung society
and
thereby
to
provide
us
in the West with a
primitive
vision of the ideal of
sexually
liberated womanhood.8
Life
history writing,
as a
subgenre
of
ethnographic writing,
falls
prey
to the same
general
view of holism as
typification,
which has
been described as
"perhaps
the most sacred of all the cows of tradi-
tional
anthropological theorizing
and
description."9
One common
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226 Ruth Behar
problem
in life
history writing
is that the
typifying
narrative or
frame
provided by
the
ethnographer
as an
authority
on the culture
often
speaks past,
rather than
to,
the native narrative. Oscar Lewis
prefaced
some of the most
moving
life
history
narratives ever col-
lected,
in Children
of
Sanchez
(and elsewhere),
with dubious
theoretical
generalizations
about "the culture of
poverty"
and its
production
of
"badly damaged
human
beings"10
that,
in the
end,
said little about the
multiperspectival
texts
they
were meant to in-
troduce-
and
even,
I would
say,
did violence to them
by showing
so little
regard
for what his
subjects actually
had to
say. (I
will re-
turn to this theme of the violence of
representation shortly.)
Mar-
jorie
Shostak introduced each
chapter
of Nisa's
narrative,
which
she
reorganized
into such
general categories
as
economy, gender,
and
religion,
with
ethnographic generalizations
that
preceded
Nisa's own
words;
but
rarely
is there an
analysis
of the words
themselves or a serious
attempt
to come to terms with how Nisa
constructed her life as a
story using indigenous
notions of oral
per-
formance or even notions of
commodity exchange
modeled on the
long history
of Western contact with the
!Kung.11
Shostak's
agenda
continually
acts as a barrier to
really hearing
what Nisa is
saying.
Although
Nisa
speaks
in detail of sexual violence and
wifebeating,
Shostak
insists,
in her
ethnographically
authoritative
voice,
that
the
!Kung
have
highly egalitarian gender
relations.
This
speaking past
the
text,
rather than to the
text,
is the
product
of a common
misconception
about life
history
texts:
namely,
that
they "speak
for
themselves,"
as
though transparent, existing
out-
side or
beyond
a
particular reading.
As Michael W.
Young,
criticiz-
ing
this
tendency,
remarks: life
history
texts "are
frequently
of-
fered as self-evident 'cultural documents' rather than as texts to be
interrogated
and
interpreted."12 Gelya
Frank,
who
provides
an
especially cogent critique
of the
tendency
to let life
history
texts
pass
untheorized,
notes that the
assumption
behind not
analyzing
the text is that
"every
reader
already
has a sense of how to under-
stand another
person."
On the one
hand,
"the common denomina-
tor" of life histories is the
primary
act of
readership by
which a
reader identifies with the
subject
of the narrative.
Yet,
on the other
hand,
"the natural attitude of readers towards
biography,"
like "the
social science
approach," wrongly
assumes that the life
history
is "a
direct
representation
of the informant's life, something
almost
equivalent
to the informant's life." The text
is,
in
fact,
not the
per-
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Ruth Behar 227
son but a version of the self constructed
by
a
subject
to
present
to
the
anthropologist:
"The text falls into the
background
as a neutral
tool or medium for the
'phenomena' (the
events of a
person's
life as
experienced)
to shine
through. Autobiographical
texts
appear
to of-
fer a truer
experience
of the
subject's
life,
a direct
outpouring
of con-
sciousness,
but here too certain conventions are invoked to struc-
ture the narrative."13 These conventions stem from native tradi-
tions of
storytelling,
but
they
are
also,
significantly, unique
forms
that
emerge
in discourse with the
anthropologist.
As Frank
sug-
gests,
the
biographer-ethnographer
must
gain
a clearer sense of the
making
of the life
history
text as a
text,
so as to denaturalize the
link between text and
person.
In this
manner,
we can
begin
to
read and to write life histories
differently,
in more
imaginative
and
theoretically
rich
ways.
What we need to do more of in life
history
work is
basically
to
read-or think about how to read
(and write)-the
native text.
Neither the
presentation
of
transcripts
of the raw
dialogues (as
in
Kevin
Dwyer's
Moroccan
Dialogues: Anthropology
in
Question)
nor
edited and recombined
pieces
made to flow "like a novel"
(as
in
Oscar Lewis's various
family autobiographies)
are solutions to the
dilemma of
having
to read the text. The life
history
text is not
meaningful
in
itself;
it is constituted in its
interpretation,
its
reading. Reading
a life
history
text,
and then
writing
it,
calls for an
interpretation
of cultural themes as
they
are
creatively
constructed
by
the actor within a
particular configuration
of social forces and
gender
and class
contexts; and,
at the
same,
a closer
analysis
of the
making
of the life
history
narrative as a
narrative,
using
critical
forms of textual
analysis
and self-reflexive
(rather
than self-
ingratiating)
mediation on the
relationship
between the
storyteller
and the
anthropologist.
Of
course,
calling
a life
history
a text
already
reflects a
particular
analytic
move
and,
in a
sense,
a
particular
colonization of the act
of
telling
a life
story.
With deconstruction we have learned that the
border between the
"spoken"
and the "written" is a fluid one.
Thus,
it is not
orality
versus
textuality
that I call into
question
here,
with
the
image
it
conjures up
of the
ethnographer salvaging
the
fleeting
native
experience
in the net of the text.14 The more relevant dis-
tinction for me is Walter
Benjamin's
distinction between
storytell-
ing
and information.
Information,
in
Benjamin's analysis,
is a
mode of communication linked to the
development
of the
printing
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228
Ruth Behar
press
and of
capitalism;
it
presents
itself as
verifiable,
it is "shot
through
with
explanation,"
and it is
disposable
because it is
forget-
table.
Storytelling,
on the other
hand,
is
"always
the art of
repeating
stories,"
without
explanation, combining
the extraor-
dinary
and the
ordinary;
most
importantly,
it is
grounded
in a
community
of listeners on whom the
story
makes a claim to be re-
membered
by
virtue of its "chaste
compactness,"
which
inspires
the
listener,
in
turn,
to become the teller of the
story.1s
It worries
me that one does violence to the life
history
as a
story by turning
it
into the
disposable commodity
of information.
My,
at least
partial,
solution to this
problem
has been to focus on the act of life
story
representation
as
reading
rather than as
informing,
with its echoes
of surveillance and disclosures of truth. And I
try
to make clear
that what I am
reading
is a
story,
or set of
stories,
that have been
told to
me,
so that
I,
in
turn,
can tell them
again, transforming
myself
from a listener to a
storyteller.
WOMAN READING
(AND REPRESENTING)
WOMAN
In this
paper
I
explore ways
of
reading
the life
story
narrative of a
Mexican
marketing
woman,
a
marchanta,
as an account of culture
making
and
story making.
I borrow the notion of
"reading
woman"
from
Mary Jacobus,
who uses it to
develop
a
theory
of how
"woman"
is constructed "within a
multiplicity
of
shifting
selves
...
endlessly displacing
the
fixity
of
gender identity by
the
play
of dif-
ference and division which
simultaneously
creates and uncreates
gender, identity,
and
meaning."16
The focus on
reading places
the
accent on the constructed
quality
of woman as
subject,
whether
"reading
woman"
(that
is,
women or men
-
especially
in Freudian
analysis -constructing
woman as different in their
texts)
or
"woman
reading
woman"
(that
is,
women
interpreting
as women
the texts or self-constructions of other
women).
I use the notion of
reading
here to ask
anthropological questions
about issues of
representation
and what it means for me as a Western woman to
read
(and thereby constitute)
the life
history
text of another
(Third
World/Latin
American/Mexican)
woman.
Esperanza
Hernandez
(a
self-chosen
pseudonym),
the
subject
and
coproducer
of the narrative, fits all the
typologies
of lower-
class Mexican womanhood-battered child, battered wife, aban-
doned
wife, female head of
household, unwed mother, "Indian"
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Ruth Behar 229
marketing
woman,
believer in witchcraft. Yet I want to see her not
as a
type
but as she sees
herself,
as an actor thrust in the world
seeking
to
gain meaning
out of the events of her life.
Similarly,
although
such
general topics
as female/male
relations,
notions of
exchange, healing,
witchcraft, women's
power,
and
cosmology
can be
pulled
out of the
account,
I will view them not as
typified
objects
but as constructs
emerging
out of
Esperanza's experience
as
presented
in her
story
of how she made herself within the limits
of her world. The limits of her world
are, indeed,
those of the
social class and
gender
to which she was
born,
but
they
are limits
which she herself
reproduces
in terms
meaningful
to her.
Culture,
gender,
and class are
simultaneously
constructed in
Esperanza's
life
story.
The recent
critique
of the notion of
"place"
in
anthropology
can
be
expanded
to a
critique
of the
place
women have been
given
to
inhabit both in
writing
on Latin American women
and,
more
generally,
in life histories of women.17 In both these
literatures,
there is a vexed
part/whole
relation of women to the
larger
male-
dominated
society
which constrains their
possibilities
for action
and defines the limits of what constitutes culture. In life
history
writing,
accounts
by
women have often been collected to
provide
the
"women's
view" on societies that have
already
been described
from a "holistic"
(read male) typifying
view or even to
supplement
previously
collected life histories of
men,
as when
Nancy
Lurie
wrote Mountain
Wolf Woman,
Sister
of
Crashing
Thunder
(1961)
in
response
to Paul Radin's
Crashing
Thunder: The
Autobiography
of
an
American Indian
(1926).
That "female
experience
could ever ex-
plain
the whole culture or even a central
aspect
of it" is
outrightly
denied,
for "women unlike men are not seen as true
represen-
tatives of their societies."18 Even as
they occupy
the role of central
protagonists
in their own life
history
narratives,
women tend to be
cast as Adamic
fragments, part-people
and
part-societies,
with
limited and slanted views of their world.
Certainly
we need to
go
beyond
this view of women's social action as
supplementary,
as
reacting against
a male
world,
rather than as
creatively
construc-
ting
a
complete
social world.
In work on women in Latin
America,
the
part/whole problem
surfaces in another form.
There, the
incompleteness
of women as
social actors is shown in the
overwhelming emphasis placed
on
the
political
and economic
aspects
of women's
experience.
Ac-
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230 Ruth Behar
counts focus on women's economic
exploitation
and
political
muting,
or
they point
to the
ways
in which women
gain
con-
sciousness and a voice in their
society
at the cost of
great
emo-
tional and often
physical hardship.19 Esperanza's
narrative
sug-
gests
that there are other
possibilities
for
seeing
Latin American
women as actors that
expand
the
categories
of women as wives
and
mothers, workers, doers,
and
political
activists. It
suggests
that,
if looked at from a cultural
perspective,
Latin American
women can
emerge
as
thinkers,
cosmologists,
creators of worlds.
The
challenge
of
trying
to write about
Esperanza
in this
way
is
that one is
constantly
forced to come to terms
with,
and
counter,
the fact that Mexico - and the Mexican lower-class woman in
par-
ticular-exists in academic as well as mainstream
reporting
as a
pretheorized reality,
an
already-fixed representation.
Listen,
for
example,
to the
half-disgusted, half-pitying description
of a Mex-
ican lower-class woman offered
by
a female folklorist:
Of all the
impressions
I received while in
Mexico,
one stands out
sharply
from all the rest.
Everywhere
I
went,
whether to the market
places
in the
provinces
or the
elegant
Zona Rosa of Mexico
City,
I saw the
very
same scene:
a
very, very young
woman,
at the most
seventeen,
holding by
the hand a child
who looked to be no older than two. In her arms she carried a
tiny baby tightly
wrapped
in a
rebozo,
and
always
her
belly
was
big
with child
...
I
spoke
to
many
women about their
situation,
and
always
their sadness disturbed me.
They
were not
joyful
in their
motherhood,
they
were
resigned.20
Octovio
Paz,
speaking
of Mexican womanhood from an interest
in
"Mexicanness,"
instead romanticizes the
image
of the Mexican
woman as
long-suffering
victim,
calling
her "an
image
of immobili-
ty,
secretive,
passive,
an
idol,
a victim who is hardened and
rendered insensitive
by
her
suffering" yet
one who
"being
sinful
from birth must be subdued with a stick"21
(stick being
used
here,
one
supposes,
in the literal and sexual sense of the
word).
This im-
age
of the
long-suffering
Mexican woman
closely
matches Oscar
Lewis's
depiction
of the
impoverished "ordinary
Mexican" as
feminized
by
a
"great capacity
for
misery
and
suffering."22
We have here a set of classical
images
which
reduce,
by
means
of
representational
conventions,
the
marginal
Mexican to
object
status: on the one
hand,
the
fatalistic,
yet
heroic,
poor
Mexican
caught tight
in the
grip
of the "culture of
poverty" by
unfortunate
"attitudes" and "value
systems" (terms
used
by Lewis).
This
object
status is reinforced
by
the fact that these
people
are said to suffer
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Ruth Behar 231
so much that
they
are
beyond pain, beyond feeling, beyond being.
They
are not
granted subjectivity, agency,
and critical conscious-
ness. These
images
are the
representational
axis of an
analysis
that
is
forged
within a context of a First World/Third World balance of
power,
a
balance, which,
I must
add,
exists
internally
within the
"Third
World," too,
as evidenced in the First World
style
of theoriz-
ing
of Octavio Paz. A critical
ethnographic
narrative - within
which I include the
reconceptualized
life
history
narrative - should
instead seek to destabilize this balance of
power
and
knowledge
so
that the
self-understanding
and critical
practice
of
specific
actors
can come to the fore.
As Chandra
Talpade Mohanty
remarks with
respect
to universal
images
of the "Third World woman" as "the veiled
woman,
the
powerful mother,
the chaste
virgin,
the obedient
wife,"
images
generated by
Western feminist
analyses,
such
images "perpetrate
and sustain the
hegemony
of the idea of
superiority
of the West
...
setting
in motion a colonialist discourse which exercises a
very
specific power
in
defining, coding
and
maintaining existing
first/
third world connections."23
By representing,
as
Mohanty points
out,
the
average
Third World woman as
leading
"a truncated life
based on her feminine
gender (read: sexually constrained)
and be-
ing
'third world'
(read: ignorant, poor,
uneducated,
tradition-
bound, domestic,
family-oriented,
victimized,
etc.),"
Western femi-
nists have
engaged
in
implicit,
discursive
self-representation
of
themselves as
"educated, modern,
as
having
control over their
bodies and
sexualities,
and the freedom to make their own deci-
sions."24
Inverting
this
tendency
to view the women
they study
as
passive
victims,
and
perhaps overcompensating,
some feminist
anthropologists
have
lately
stressed the existence of female cul-
tures of
resistance,
thereby extending
the Western feminist self-
representation
to their
subjects.25 Clearly, any ethnographic repre-
sentation-and I include
my
own,
of
course-inevitably
reflects a
self-representation
and a certain
economy
of
representation.
Even
more
subtly,
the act of
representing,
as Edward Said
points
out,
"almost
always
involves violence of some sort to the
subject
of the
representation," using
as it must some
degree
of
reduction,
decon-
textualization, and miniaturization. "This is one of the unresolv-
able
problems
of
anthropology,"
as Said tells us.26 Yet I think there
is
hope
insofar as we realize that
ethnographic critique presents
us
with the
paradox,
so well
put by
Linda
Brodkey
as "the
process by
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232 Ruth Behar
which each of us confronts our
respective inability
to
comprehend
the
experience
of others even as we
recognize
the absolute necessi-
ty
of
continuing
the effort to do
so."27
Mohanty's sharp critique
of Western feminist
representational
conventions also takes us in a different
direction,
toward the re-
cent
general critique
of
ethnographic representations exemplified
by
the
papers
in
Writing
Culture: The Poetics and Politics
of
Ethnog-
raphy (1986).
Her
critique
of how Western feminists have un-self-
consciously
created a cultural other in their
images
of Third World
women
points
to the
way
in which feminist
ethnography
fits
within a
larger process
of cultural colonization of the non-Western
world. This
critique
of feminist
representational
forms,
which
poses
the same
problems
about
authority
and
repression
as does
ethnography,
is a crucial
step
toward
answering
the
challenge
posed by James
Clifford in his
castigating
remarks about feminist
ethnographers
not
having "produced
either unconventional forms
of
writing
or a
developed
reflection on
ethnographic textuality
as
such."28
Clifford here overlooks one vast terrain of feminist work in
which, indeed,
unconventional forms of
writing
and theoretical
exploration
of
ethnographic textuality
in the broad sense of the
term have
figured prominently, radically,
and
creatively -namely,
the terrain of women's
autobiography
and the
complex
discussions
of women's
memory, politics
of
home,
and
language
use and
writing
which it has
inspired.29
I think this is a
key
terrain to
which all
ethnographers
can turn for
insights
and
examples
of
alternative forms of
representation
and text
making
that combine
personal experience
with
poetic, political,
and cultural
critique.
In her review of women's
autobiographies,
Domna Stanton
found that
"autobiographical"
had
positive
connotations when
referring
to the works of male authors
(e.g.,
Saint
Augustine, Jean-
Jacques
Rousseau,
Henry Miller),
but when the term referred to
women's
writings,
it
inevitably
became linked to
negative
ideas
about women's
incapacity
for
self-transcendence;
their
presumed
inability
to rise above the
concrete,
the
daily,
the
domestic,
and
the
"personal." Internalizing
this
negativity,
women writers
themselves,
like
Colette,
could
say
that women's
writings
seem a
joke
to men because
"they
can't
help being autobiographical."
Yet if
there is a difference in the
way
women
speak
and write,
it
clearly
does not reside in some inherent
deficiency
or limitation but in the
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Ruth Behar 233
different
experience
of women in
society
and in the
specific ways
in which the
category
and idea of the "feminine" is constructed in a
given
culture. Stanton
points
out that the
purpose
of literate
women's
autobiographies
has been not so much to reveal intimate
secrets - in
fact,
they
manifest a
good
deal of concealment and self-
censorship
-but to
conquer identity through writing.
These
"female
autographs"
are acts of
self-assertion,
of
giving
substance
to the female "I" in diverse
settings
of male domination that render
women the inessential other.30
This view of women's
autobiographies
as a vehicle for con-
stituting
the female
subject might
be
fruitfully
extended to
women's
orally
related life histories in non-Western
settings,
as
well,
and
beyond
to the
ways
in which women reflect on their ex-
periences,
emotions,
and self-construction. From this
perspective
it is worth
taking up
as a
positive
feature,
rather than a shortcom-
ing,
the idea that women's stories about themselves have a con-
crete,
context-specific
texture. As Susan
Geiger
remarks in an im-
portant
review
essay
about women's life
histories,
"feminist
scholars have revealed that notions of
objectivity
themselves are
andocentric,
and that the
higher
levels of abstraction assumed to
present
a 'true'
picture
of
'reality'
often
represent
neither truth nor
reality
for women." Life
histories,
in
particular,
as
subjective
documents,
have
rigor
and
integrity,
because
"they
do not claim
'ungendered point-of-viewlessness"'
while
revealing
that "con-
sciousness is not
simply
the act of
interpreting
but also of con-
structing
the social world."31
Taking up
the
challenge
of
writing
about female consciousness
as world
making, Emily
Martin's recent
book,
The Woman in the
Body:
A Cultural
Analysis
of
Reproduction,
focuses on the
ways
in
which Baltimore women talk about their
experience
of
living
in
female bodies in an industrial
society geared
to a
production
rhythm
that violates the ebb and flow of women's
cyclical biology.
Martin's
analysis
builds on Dell
Hymes's critique
of Basil Bern-
stein's distinction between elaborated and restricted
codes,
in
which
Hymes questions
"whether abstract discourse is
necessarily
the
only
or even the best
way
to achieve
general understanding."32
Martin maintains that
powerful
and
insightful
commentaries on
the social order are embedded in the
concrete, narrative, storytell-
ing
form of
discourse,
and she offers the reader a
challenge
that I
want to offer here as well: "It is
up
to
anyone
who listens to a
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234 Ruth Behar
woman's
tale to hear the
implicit message, interpret
the
powerful
rage,
and watch for
ways
in which the narrative form
gives
'a
weighted quality
to incident'
[a
citation from
Hymes], extending
the
meaning
of an incident
beyond
itself."33 It
is
precisely
the im-
plicit messages
and
weighted qualities
of
Esperanza's
tale that I
want to ask
you
to listen and watch
for,
as I
try
to work out an in-
terpretation
of the
rage
that
simultaneously
tears at and
empowers
her.
APPROACHING ESPERANZA'S
STORY:
SUBJECTIVITY,
VOICE,
AND TEXT
Esperanza's history
is a
story
about her life that was constructed
very consciously by
her as a narrative with herself in the role of
central
protagonist
and
heroine,
and I would like to take it serious-
ly
as a text. Even before I
thought
to
tape-record
her life
history,
she had told
me,
in
compressed
form,
much of her
story.
She did
this,
I
realized,
not for
my particular
benefit,
but because she
already
had the habit of
putting
her life in
story
terms for her
children-and
especially
her two
daughters-to
hear and learn a
lesson from.34 In
telling
her
story
to
me,
she
undoubtedly
wanted
me to confirm a
particular image
of
herself,
and
my listening
so at-
tentively
to her stories did
perhaps
add moral
weight
to
them,
as
lessons for her children. But like
Youngsu
Mother's
story,
the
Korean shaman about whom Laurel Kendall has
recently
written,
Esperanza's story
reminds us "that some
among
our informants are
storytellers
in their own lives and that the words
they provide
have not been
given
to us
alone."35 When
I told
Esperanza
that I
thought
her life narrative would make a
very good
book,
she com-
pletely agreed,
and she took a certain
pride
in
thinking
that she
alone of all the women in the town had a life worth
turning
into a
text,
or
even,
she
said,
emphasizing
her life's
supreme textuality,
into a
history,
into a film.
Esperanza
views her life as a
story,
as
worthy
of
making
into a
story,
because of her notion of
story,
which is based on three inter-
texts-the Christian narrative as a
story
of
suffering,
and
par-
ticularly
of
suffering through
the
body
as a vehicle for the release
of
spirit
and
divinity;
a sense of the melodramatic
(a quintes-
sentially
female version of the
"tragic")
as found in
photonoveis
and television,
whose
soap operas
she
occasionally
watches on a
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Ruth Behar 235
set that her son has hooked
up
to a car
battery;
and cultural
myths
of women's abilities that attribute to women
supernatural powers
to harm the men who
wrong
them. Most
important
for her is the
notion of narrative as
inscribing
a
progression
from
suffering
to
rage
to
redemption.
When I told her that I was also
asking
other
women to tell me their
stories,
she was
positively
shocked when I
mentioned
among
them a
younger, respected
schoolteacher in the
town. "But
she,
what has she suffered? I never heard that her hus-
band beat
her,
that she suffered from
rages," Esperanza responded.
In her
view,
the
rage brought
on
by suffering,
and
redemption
through suffering,
is what
gives
a woman the
right
and the need to
become a text.
Rage
and
redemption
form the
poles
of her life as
text.
Esperanza
lives in the small town of
Mexquitic,
in the arid
high-
lands of San Luis Potosi in north-central Mexico. She is a marchan-
ta,
a vendor of flowers she herself
produces
when in
season,
and
of
vegetables
that she
buys
at the market and resells door-to-door
to her established clients in the
city
of San Luis
Potosi,
just
a half-
hour
away by
bus. As a
self-employed marketing
woman,
mediat-
ing
between the rural and the urban world in the informal econ-
omy,
she
depends
on her wits and the charm of her
style
to make
a
living.
Flowers,
which she carries to sell in a
pail
balanced on her
head,
symbolically
mean a
good
deal to her and
speak
both to her
preoccupation
with the revelation of the cosmic in
everyday
life
and the
high
value
given
to motherhood in Mexican
culture;
she
says
that the
Virgin Mary
is never absent in a house where there
are children and flowers.
Esperanza
is the mother of two sons from her
marriage
and of
two
daughters
and a son born to her later out of wedlock. For her
sixty years
of
age
she has a remarkable
vitality,
almost a
girlish-
ness about
her;
she has a fine sense of
irony
and,
rather than
being
bitter about a bitter life
-
as she herself
says
-
she
jokes
and
laughs
a
good
deal. Her voice is rich and
strong
and she uses it
skillfully
in
storytelling, imitating
the voices of all the characters in her tales
and
modulating
her
pitch
to suit dramatic
purposes.
She wears her
thick brown hair in two
long
braids and dresses in the
apron
and
shawl that
identify
a woman as traditional
working
class and as In-
dian.
Esperanza's
Indianness
is,
from the dominant
society's
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236 Ruth Behar
perspective,
inauthentic and
degraded.
She neither
speaks
Nahautl-as
her
grandparents
did-nor makes
crafts;
she claims
Spanish
as her
language,
even as her braids and
apron identify
her
as a woman with an Indian
heritage
rooted not in
ethnicity,
but in
race/class distinctions. She shares a
single
house
compound
with
her
mother,
her married son and his wife and
child,
and her
teenage daughters
and
younger
son;
each
family group
has a
bedroom of its
own,
but the
cooking space
and
courtyard
are used
in common. Their house is on the outskirts of
Mexquitic's
town
center,
set on a hill
overlooking
the
town,
where the electric wires
do not
yet
reach and
running
water,
recently
installed,
flows from
a
single
outdoor faucet.
Before I knew
Esperanza's
own
story,
I heard the stories about
her that circulate in
Mexquitic. Esperanza,
I learned from various
women,
bewitched her
husband,
Julio,
after he left her and re-
turned to town with another woman and their children.
Cursing
him,
according
to one
story,
with the
words,
"So that
you
will
never
again
see
women,"
she had caused him to
go suddenly
and
completely
blind. No one knew
exactly
how she had done
it,
but
there was some
suspicion
that she had thrown
special powders
at
him or
gotten
a witch to do the work for her in San Luis. She had
publicized
the
rage
she felt for
Julio,
and these rumors seemed to
testify
to the belief that there was no
telling
what an
enraged
woman was
capable
of
doing.
Doesn't Ecclesiasticus tell us that
"there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman?' I also
learned,
from various
people,
that
Esperanza
was a
bad-tempered,
com-
bative woman one had to take care not to offend. Her
public image
was that of a
sharp-tongued, aggressive,
unsentimental
woman,
who had
gone
so far as to throw her eldest son out of the house.
For a
long
time I hesitated to meddle with her.
I
finally got
to know
Esperanza myself
when she asked
my
hus-
band and
me,
out of the
blue,
to be
godparents
of the cake for her
daughter's coming-of-age
rite
(quinceaf~era).
Soon
after,
she came to
ask us to be
godparents
for her Christ child. With
this,
we became
comadres, comothers,
linked
through
ties of ritual
kinship.
On
my
first
acquaintance
with
Esperanza,
I admit that I was
put
off
by
her. She was
demanding
in her
requests,
rather than deferential as
others were. Her two
requests
for
compadrazgo, representing
significant outlays
of
money
from
us,
followed
quickly upon
one
another,
and I had the distinct sense of
being
taken
advantage
of.
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Ruth Behar
237
These fears
quickly
abated as I
got
to know and like
Esperanza
and
realized how much I could learn from her.
Certainly,
I was better
able to
separate
the
myth
from the woman but found that she
had,
in a
deep
sense,
become the
myth.
However,
the fact that I had in-
itially
reacted as I had made me realize the extent to which the
ethnographic
relation is based on
power
and
that, indeed,
I felt un-
comfortable when an "informant" was assertive and
aggressive,
rather than
passive
and
cooperative
as informants should be. As
has often been the case in other
relationships
between the
subject
of a life
history
narrative and the
anthropologist,36
I did not seek
out
Esperanza,
but rather she
sought
me out. She chose me to hear
her
story
and to take it back across the
border,
to the
mysterious
and
powerful
"other side" from which I came.
Shortly
before I was due to leave in
1985,
she came to our house
for several
evenings
to
tape-record
her life
history, talking
nonstop,
late into the
night,
for three and four hours at a time. She
treated her narrative as a
string
of self-contained
stories,
segments,
or
episodes,
rather like a
soap opera
serial. Each
night
she would
ask where we had left off and
pick up
from
there,
stringing
another
story,
another bead on her
rosary,
until she herself
thought
she had attained some sort of closure. As a
performance,
her narrative had the
quality
of a one-woman theater of
voices,
because she told
virtually
the entire
story
in
dialogue
form. I did
not have to "elicit" the
account; rather,
it was
necessary
for me to
expand my capacities
to listen to oral
storytelling
and
perfor-
mance. On
my
return
trips
to
Mexquitic
in
1987, 1988,
and
1989,
she has filled in the recent events of her life and taken me to meet
the healer/medium in San Luis who aids her in her
continuing
struggle
with evil. She
always
came to converse with me accom-
panied by
her son or
daughter,
often with
both,
and she told her
story
as much for their edification as for mine.
REPRODUCING THE MOTHER IN THE DAUGHTER
"Comadre,
what a
life,
the life I've lived.
My
life is such a
long
history. My
life has been
very
sad,
very
sad.
Black, black,
like
my
mother's life." With these
words,
Esperanza begins
her
narrative,
going
on to recall her mother's life as she witnessed it
during
the
early years
of her childhood. This
mother-daughter mirroring
is a
key
theme in her
account;
often it seems as
though
she is
collaps-
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238
Ruth Behar
ing
time,
and
through
her life
giving
birth to her mother's life. In
childhood,
by witnessing
her father's brutal treatment of her
mother,
Esperanza gains
a vivid sense of the violence of
patriar-
chal domination. In her words:
"My
father hit her for
any
little
thing.
... He would arrive and
say
to
us,
'Why
are
you making
such a
racket,
you goddamn
children.'
My
father
always spoke
to
us in curses.
'Why
do
you
make so much
noise,
you
sons of-'
[and
to her
mother]
'You
daughter
of who knows
what,
why
don't
you
make them shut
up?' Everything
offended him."
Esperanza
recall-
ed how her father would accuse her and her
siblings
of
being
"pimps"
for their
mother,
covering up
affairs that he was certain
she must be
having. (Later,
when
Esperanza
married,
Julio
leveled
the same accusation
against
her,
even while
keeping
her
virtually
locked
up
in the
house.)
If her mother sneaked out of the house
and went to
grind
corn in other houses to earn some tortillas for
her
family,
her father would become
furious,
accusing
her of
go-
ing
to other houses to
cry
about her troubles.
Finally,
after a
par-
ticularly nasty beating,
her mother returned home to her mother's
house,
leaving Esperanza
and her
siblings
behind,
uttering
the
words,
"I didn't
bring any
children with
me,
and I'm not
taking any
children with me."
Her mother's
escape
from this
dark, violent, closed,
oppressive,
male-dominated world is followed
by
the
escape
of
Esperanza
and
her
siblings,
who as small children stole off in the middle of the
night
with a
strip
of mutton and a few blankets to
rejoin
their
mother. The
escape
theme is another
key topos
in
Esperanza's
nar-
rative;
she
too,
when her time
comes,
escapes
from the incarcera-
tion of
marriage (as
she herself describes
it),
rather like the
slave,
in the slave
narrative,
made a
journey
from
bondage
to freedom
through
the narrative drive of a text.
After this dark
period, Esperanza goes
on to describe what she
considers to have been the
happiest years
of her life -the time of
her
adolescence,
when she was
independent, working,
and self-
sufficient. Her mother had sent her sister to work in San Luis as a
domestic when she was
twelve;
Esperanza
went to work at the
age
of ten. The two sisters worked in various
houses,
and
they
shared
a stint
together working
in a luncheonette which
Esperanza
en-
joyed
because of the
easy availability
of food. When
Esperanza
was
eighteen,
she and her sister returned to
Mexquitic
for the
fiesta of Saint Michael, the
patron
saint of the
town,
and it was
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Ruth Behar
239
then that she
was,
almost
literally
in her
description,
snared
by
Julio
while she was out in the fields
collecting maguey juice.
At this
point
in the
narration,
Esperanza
turned to me and
said,
"Now that's the
good part.
What's still to come. That life eternal. I
may
even start
crying.
The life I lived.
My
life is a
history. My
life
is a film. . . . To suffer
just
like
my
mother. Here
[pointing
to the
space
between her
brows],
he kicked me twice. Here
[pointing
to
the side of her
head]
he threw a machete at me. And I suffered the
same life as
my
mother." It was 1949. It was New Year's Eve. She
and
Julio argued
all
night
-"he
wanting
to do his
things
with
me,"
as
Esperanza put
it,
and she
refusing. Esperanza finally
followed
Julio
to his mother's
house,
where he made a vow to
marry
her.
When her mother found
Esperanza
in the
courtyard
of
Julio's
house the next
day,
she refused to
say anything
more to her
than,
"Get
away.
Do
you
have no
shame?'
Her mother took both
Esperanza
and
Julio
to the town court
(a frequent pattern
when a
woman has left the
parental house)
and
said, '"Well,
if he's such a
man and knows how to
carry
out his word about
marrying my
daughter,
then I want him to
go
to church
right
now and make the
arrangements." By
thus
taunting Julio
to be a "real
man,"
Esperan-
za's
mother
sought
to redress the
disgrace
of her
daughter's
loss of
honor
(for
she assumed that
Esperanza
had lost her
virginity).
Seeking
to confer on
Esperanza
the kind of
respectability
that she
herself had lost
leaving
her own
husband,
Esperanza's
mother,
ironically, pushed
her
daughter
into a
marriage
that
Esperanza
had
grave
doubts about. In the weeks of
preparation
for the
wedding,
a
townswoman fitted
Esperanza
for her white
wedding
dress. Later
Esperanza
was to recall the
prophetic
words this woman uttered to
her in conversation:
"'So
you're getting
married,
young
woman?
'Yes.' 'Good. But be
careful,'
she
says.
'A white
wedding
dress is
very
beautiful but also
very punishing."'
In her
narrative,
Esperanza plays
on this
image
of
marriage
as
incarceration,
as the cross and the curse of the white
wedding
dress,
and as a darkness and a
bondage
from which she was not
able to see the
light
of
day
until her
emergence
into freedom six-
teen
years
later. Her
story
is built on the contrast between her
cloistered life
during marriage (a constricting
female
space)
and
her later life as an
independent
woman and a
fully public person.
A week after her
wedding,
the
reality
of her
bondage,
of
being
cut
off from the world of
family
and friends, was
brought
home to her
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240 Ruth Behar
by
her mother-in-law.
Just
as her own mother
upheld
a social-
religious
order based on
patriarchal
domination that had exerted
its violence
against
her, so, too,
her mother-in-law turned out to be
as brutal as or more brutal than
Julio
in her reinforcement of the
idea that women should be subordinate to their husbands in mar-
riage.
Even to
peek
out the
door,
Esperanza
learned
early
on,
was a
transgression
for her:
I went to the door to
peep
out. I took it as a
joke
that it was the same
thing
to be
single
as to be married. I went to the
door,
just
to look out. I'm
looking
out the
door and
my
mother-in-law is in the other room
selling pulque,
with the men
there. And a man
passes by
and looks at me. That seemed
funny
to me. I
just
stood there.
Suddenly
she
grabs
me
by
the
hair,
by
the
braids,
and
pushes
me
inside. We had been married
eight days. "Why
did
you go
out? What are
you
looking
for?" It was the first
scolding
I
got
from her. After that I was
really
sorry
I had
gotten
married. But what could I do?
So,
she finished
pushing,
shoving,
and
hitting
me. "So that
you'll
know that from now on
things
are not
the same as when
you
were
single."...
And she
said,
"Here
you
are done with
mother. Here
you
are done with friends. Here
you
are done with
compadres.
With
girlfriends.
Here
you
are done with comadritas.
Here,
you
came to know
your obligation
towards
your
husband,
nothing
else.".
..
So I tell
you.
It was a
very
black life.
During
sixteen
years.
I held out for sixteen
years.
RAGE AND REFUSAL
In
1950,
a
year
after
marrying, Esperanza
had her first
child,
a
daughter,
who lived for
only
nine months. The child
died,
Es-
peranza
said,
because
Esperanza
had suffered a
coraje,
a
very deep
anger
or
rage,
after
finding Julio
with another woman
by
the river-
banks.
Julio
had also
begun, by
this
time,
to beat her often for
anything
that offended him about her behavior.
Although
he was
continually
unfaithful -
ending up
in
jail
six times for
dishonoring
different
young
women-he
suspected
her,
constantly,
of
having
lovers;
yet
it was
Esperanza's sexuality
that was denied as she bore
one doomed
offspring
after another. After her first child
died,
she
learned from a healer that the child had sucked her
anger
in with
the
milk;
the
anger pent up
within her had
poisoned
her
milk,
causing
her child's death
(with
this,
Esperanza
is initiated into the
largely
female subculture of illness and
healing).
One after another
Esperanza's
children died. As she
put it, she was never without
corajes,
she sufffered from one continual
coraje,
a
deep welling up
of
rage
that killed the children she
gave
life to.
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Ruth Behar 241
Coraje
is an emotion and illness state
especially
common to
women that is
sparked by
strife between
spouses
or between
mother and
child;
as in this case of
"angry
milk,"
coraje
forms
part
of a feminine
ontology
of
suffering
and
despair.37 Coraje
also bears
a close resemblance to the
rage
that
Ilongots experience
at the
death of close
kin,
moving
them to want to
expel grief by
head-
hunting.38
Even more
broadly, rage
is a
culturally
forceful state of
consciousness,
whether it refers to feminist
rage
or the diffuse
anger
that
oppressed people
feel in colonial
settings.39
That
Esperanza
views her married
life
as the embodiment of a
constant,
suppressed rage expresses
her sense of its
disorderliness,
of its
spiritual
and
bodily wrongness.
Her
description
of her feel-
ings
and interaction with
Julio
after the death of their third child
provides
a view of her
daily rage
and of its transformation in her
account into a narrative of the
grotesque:
"She died and she died!
And it was
my martyrdom!
It was
my martyrdom
as
always.
I
would
say
to
myself,
all
my
children
die,
it isn't worth it for me to
have children. . . . Then he would
say
to
me, furious, 'Well,
you
swallow
them.' Yes,
I don't have
anything
else to
eat,
so I swallow
them.' I would answer him like
that,
and he would
slug
me." Of
the
eight
children
Esperanza
bore
by Julio, only
two
sons,
her
fourth and
fifth,
survived to adulthood.
The
years
of her
marriage-with
its
violence,
its
rage,
its toil-
are described in
great
detail in
Esperanza's
narrative. But I will
skip
ahead to what
Esperanza
focused on as a
key turning point
in
her life and her text -the climactic moment at the end of her mar-
riage
when she found
Julio
in San Luis with the woman he would
eventually bring
to his mother's house as his
wife,
usurping
her:
When I had
my
last child with
him,
a
boy
named
John,
he was the last
one,
when he found the other woman in San Luis. For her he left me. But I
grabbed
her
really
well,
comadre. No! I had been
asleep.
He had me tied
up,
even
afraid. And he had me
really
humiliated .
.
. I was
eight
months
pregnant,
within
days
of
giving
birth,
but I found them in San Luis and
pounced
on them
both. I
really
beat
up
on that woman! ... I
grabbed
her
by
the hair. With both
hands,
I
pulled
at her hair. ... And I
punched
her. I
said,
"This is how I wanted
to find
you."
And to
him,
"What's new? What do
you say
to
your girl,
that
you're
a bachelor? That
you're
a
young
man,
a
boy?
Well,
you're wrong.
If
before
you
had
yours,
now I have mine." I
changed
in that moment and I don't
even know how
... "Here
is
your
child... and we still have another, and how
many
dead... I'm sick of
it.".
.. I
bring
her to her knees with
slaps...
I
pushed
her
against
a window, grabbing
her
by
the hair. I
just kept slapping
her. The
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242 Ruth Behar
blood
dripped
down.... The woman cried like a child.... And I
said,
"Today
you
walk.
Today you go
to court." He
says,
"Me? Go to court? You're
crazy."...
At that moment I no
longer respected
him. I no
longer respected
him as a hus-
band
[a
subtle
linguistic
shift takes
place
in her
story
at this
point;
she ceases to
refer to
Julio
as
usted,
the formal
you,
and now
begins
to call
him, tu,
the infor-
mal
you,
used to
speak
to
equals,
children,
and
people
of inferior
rank.]40
"You
have no shame. I
respecting you
as if
you
were more than
my
father. And now
look how I find
you."
. . . I
kept slapping
her and
pulling
at her
....
She was
wearing
a
plaid
dress,
a
string
of
pearls
around her
neck,
and her hair had been
permed.
I
pulled,
I tore her dress. That blessed
string
of
pearls
went
flying.
I
shook her and
gave
her a shove. After that I couldn't do more. I let
go
of her
and she ran off.
Esperanza
had
already begun
to see the tables
turning
before
this
incident,
when a
village
man threatened to have
Julio
sent to a
stricter
jail
in San Luis for
molesting
his
daughter (he
was in San
Luis when
Esperanza caught
him because he had
escaped
from
jail).
But this
incident,
which allowed
Esperanza finally
to
express
her
welled-up rage by inflicting pain
on the
body
of the urban
woman of
pearls (an antirosary)
and
permed
hair
(symbols
of her
non-Indianness),
the woman who had won
Julio's
affection,
was
the conversion
experience
that in her narrative turns her into a
fighting
woman,
a
myth
of a
woman,
a
"phallic
woman,"41
power-
ful
enough
to blind the man who
betrayed
and humiliated her.
With this
rebellion,
she takes on the male
role,
beating up
another
woman as she herself was beaten
by Julio.
Here,
in her
account,
another
chapter
of her life
begins
in
which,
forced to work and
earn
money
to
support
her
family,
she recovers the
independence
and
autonomy
of her adolescence.
After this
denouement,
Esperanza briefly
returned to her
mother-in-law's house. She recalls: "He left in
May.
On the 24th of
June
the
boy
was born. ... With
my
mother-in-law,
I ate
my
bitter
hours. With the
coraje,
the
child,
suckling
with
me,
had
vomiting
spells." Shortly
before the child
died,
Julio
returned with the new
woman and sent a
message
to his mother that she should
get
rid of
Esperanza.
But his mother never
got
a chance to do that. A week
after her child's
death,
Esperanza
went to court in
Mexquitic
demanding
that she be
given
her husband's
plot
of
ejido
land. This
was land that had been
expropriated
from a
nearby
hacienda after
the Mexican Revolution and redistributed to the
people
of Mex-
quitic.
The
plots
in the
ejido
are worked
by
individual families as
their
own, but ultimate title to the land resides in the
state, which
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Ruth Behar 243
has
authority
to take
plots away
from those who do not work
them.
Esperanza
had
legitimate rights
to the land because
Julio
had been
away
from the town for two
years,
and,
as his
wife,
Esperanza
could
lay
claim to it. But few women in her
position
would have
gotten up
the nerve and the resources to
actually
have
fought
to take the land
away.
A court battle ensued between
Esperanza
and her mother-in-law and
Esperanza
won the land.
Esperanza
viewed the land as due her for her
years
of labor and
suffering
in her husband's
house;
having
worked and earned
money
as a
young
woman and
begun
to work
again
after
leaving
Julio,
she had a keen sense of the value of
things.
The land was the
price
of her
rage. Having
taken
away
this
major
source of
livelihood from her husband and
mother-in-law,
Esperanza
returned to her mother's house with her two
young
sons.
The
mirroring
of mother and
daughter
receives another elabora-
tion in this
part
of her narrative.
Esperanza
remarks: "Because we
took the
plot away
from
my
mother-in-law,
that was when she
placed
the
illness,
the evil
way,
on
my
mother." It was
Esperanza's
mother who
helped Esperanza
to raise herself
up, paying
to have
her
plot
of land cleared and then sown with corn. Out of
spite
and
envy, Esperanza
thinks,
her mother-in-law ensorcelled her
mother,
causing
her to be ill for seven
years-first
with stomach
pains,
then with
pains
in the
head,
and
finally
with a severe
eye
in-
fection that left her
right eye permanently
sunken. With the
pain
of her own
body,
her mother
paid
for her
daughter's
actions,
just
as
Esperanza
suffered her mother's fate. It was
through
this
long
illness, however,
and their
quest
for a cure that
Esperanza
became
acquainted
with
Gloria,
a healer and
spirit
medium in San Luis
who
subsequently
became her
guide
and oracle in her
struggle
with evil.
During
the
long period
of her mother's
illness,
Esperanza began
to work as a
peddler.
She considered it
embarrassing
to sell in the
town where
people
knew her and decided to sell in San Luis in-
stead.
Eventually
she found her
path:
to be a
marchanta,
selling
flowers and
vegetables
door to door. In the
city,
where no one
knew her
past,
she could become another
person.
Her customers
told her that she had an
engaging
and
friendly style,
and she soon
acquired
a set of
permanent
clients - housewives in
working-class
and middle-class
neighborhoods-who expected
her flowers and
vegetables
twice a week and
gave her,
in
addition, gifts
of used
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244 Ruth Behar
'G _FTM.?o
ir,!
Esperanza carrying
her bucket
through
the
city
of San Luis
Potosf,
where she
markets
vegetables,
fruits,
and flowers door-to-door as a marchanta.
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Ruth Behar
245
clothing
and leftover meals. Her
ability
to sell and earn her own
money gave
her
confidence,
and
Esperanza
now makes a
good
liv-
ing
as a
self-employed marketing
woman,
surviving independent-
ly
of a husband on the
margins
of the
capitalist economy.
SEXUAL AND SPIRITUAL ECONOMIES
Esperanza
had a tremendous
longing
for
daughters
and three
years
after
leaving Julio,
she
began
to have an affair with a man ten
years younger
than she. As soon as the word
got
out that she was
pregnant,
her mother-in-law
began
to
go
out with
Julio's
new
woman,
introducing
her to
everyone
as a
godchild.
Then his chil-
dren
by
the new woman
began
to be seen in the street. The eldest
child,
while out
buying
beans one
day,
announced that his father
never went out
anymore
because he was blind.
Esperanza's
mother-in-law
spread
the rumor that
Esperanza
and her mother
had bewitched him.
Subsequent
events seemed to
prove
the
rumor true. Soon after her mother-in-law's
death,
Julio's
new
woman took all her children and
packed everything
in the house
into her brother's
pickup
truck,
leaving Julio.
"She left him with little more than the
pants
he had
on,"
Esperan-
za
noted,
adding,
"One
pays
for
everything.
Did he think he
wouldn't have to
pay
for what he did to me?' Thus in the
spiritual
economy
of
Esperanza's
narrative,
which is based on the idea that
"one pays
for
everything
in this world"
(todo
se
paga
en este
mundo),
Julio pays
for his evil hubris
by turning
into a
weak,
pathetic,
castrated
figure.
She awakens to an intensified
seeing,
while he
retreats into the darkness and
dependence
in which she was
submerged during
her
years
of
marriage
to him. Aware of the
rumor that she bewitched
Julio
and made him
blind,
Esperanza
does little to counter
it,
relishing
in the
power
it
gives
her. When I
asked her
directly
about
it, however,
she
laughed
and said that
only
God has such
powers
and that
Julio's
blindness was a
pay-
ment exacted
by
the divine for the
sufferings
he had caused her.
When
Esperanza's
customers-to whom
Esperanza
was also in
the habit of
telling
a
compressed
version of her life
story-would
ask her
why
she didn't find another man and
marry again,
she
would
reply, "'No, what do I want men for now? I
just beg
God to
give
me a
daughter.
Because what will I
do, alone, with two sons?
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246 Ruth Behar
LEGITIMOS POLVOS
"YO
DOM MI HOMBRE
f
.~ hi
(U - 4
~11
"; r
i ,
'i' -- $
"i ~
39
i
irr~t.c
I%
~ ??;,
t
ri s,.f
C~r. ?
r I'i i 'I
""9;
1! ,~ ,* Ik~f~ ~??t
r
9+ 3"r /~CI"
'?ct~~r 1
+:~p
iPIIa?
Pa~,~~ sS
~7?\
?s~~ P r
'Eh
Phsr'zC
LEfGIT 1iPOLVO
YO DO IO0 A MI
M
IYtJlER
CT
i
9;?
?6~P~i~ LT,:?LSi~~Y \ \
?, . w
:'?
i7
i ~-ll~BL9~c3d C+.::~ ~
Powders which hold
special powers, particularly
to control or win the affec-
tions of the
opposite
sex,
are sold
by
the
packet
in
city
markets in Mexico. The
packets
describe their contents as
"legitimate powder"
and advertise them as
having
uses like "I dominate
my
man" and "I dominate
my
woman." Ideas of
sexual witchcraft have a
long history
in
Mexico,
with roots in the colonial
past.
The rumor that
Esperanza
blinded her husband who mistreated her resonates
with cultural
myths
about women's
supernational powers
to harm the men
who
wrong
them.
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Ruth Behar 247
They
will
grow up.
Sons
grow up.
We'll lie there in the same
place,
and I distrust
my
sons. Because men are men and
they grow up.
It's fine when
they're
little,
but
they grow up.
What will I do alone
with them? With
your pardon,
comadre,
as the
saying goes,
what if
the devil has
hornsT?
Thus she was
happy,
she
says,
when God
gave
her two
daughters,
and she saw no need to form
any
sort of
lasting relationship
with the man who fathered them.
Esperanza's gender ideology,
based on the idea that men are sub-
ject
to animal desires for
sex,
including
one's own sons once
they
come of
age,
is
significant
in
light
of a number of incest stories that
figure prominently
in her narrative. The main
story
concerns her
eldest
son, Antonio,
who tried numerous times to molest her
eldest
daughter,
his
half-sister,
while
Esperanza
was
away
from
the house
selling. Again
her life became a
welling up
of
rage:
"'Who has
supported you
all these
years?
Not
your
father. ...
Why
don't
you
behave
properly?
... You're a man now. If
you
find it so
easy, grab
some woman on the
street,
or
get
married. I don't want
the
girl
to
get pregnant.
... I couldn't be here alone. Alone with the
two of
you.
Because
you grow up,
and
I
a woman
alone,
I'm sure
you
would even
try
to
grab
me in
my sleep by
force.... Go back
to
your
father. I don't want
you
like this."'
In
Esperanza's
narrative,
Antonio comes to seem more and more
like his father:
cruel,
deceptive,
obsessed with sex. As if
taking up
with his half-sister had not been
ugly enough,
he then moved on to
a
relationship
with his own uncle's former
mistress,
Esperanza's
sister-in-law. For
Esperanza
this was a
disgusting
act of animal sex-
uality,
but she could not convince Antonio. She later learned from
Gloria the healer that the woman
got
control of Antonio
by
force,
the force of
evil,
putting magic powders
in some
guavas
she
gave
him to eat. Thus
Esperanza
came to see her battle with her son as
part
of her
struggle against
evil,
a
struggle
she is still
waging.
After
leaving
his mother's
house,
Antonio
rejoined
his
father,
taking up
with the
prohibited
woman in
spite
of
Esperanza's rage. Esperanza
has disowned him. She neither
speaks
to the evil son or father
any-
more,
although
all live in the same small town. She
says
that she
still feels
rage against
them both and that she has
forgiven
neither.
With her
daughters,
whom she so
desired,
Esperanza
has a
sense of
profound
inner
struggle.
She doesn't want them to
go
through
what she has - and that is
why
she
relentlessly pounds
in-
to their hearts and minds the
story
of her life - but she knows that
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248 Ruth Behar
they
will. As she
puts
it,
again
in the
language
of a
spiritual
economy,
"one as a mother has to
pay
for what one did with one's
own children. Since I had
my
failures with another
man,
one of
them will have to do the same." When a woman becomes
pregnant
outside of
marriage
or a
permanent relationship,
she is said to
fracasar,
literally
to fail or mess
up.
The word
perfectly conveys
the sense of
failure,
of
falling,
that a woman is meant to feel when
her own
body
and
sexuality betray
her.
Esperanza
knows that she
is a fallen
woman,
and
although
she realizes that one of her
daughters
will
very likely reproduce
her life as she
reproduced
her
mother's life
(her
mother, too,
had children out of
wedlock),
she
still
struggles
to beat sense - and an awareness of
being
tied to
her,
of matrilineal
bonding-into
her
daughters.
When her eldest
daughter,
Otilia,
now
eighteen
and a domestic
in San
Luis,
refused to
support
her,
saying "Why
should I
give you
money?"' Esperanza
decided it was
necessary
to teach her a lesson.
"No.
daughter.
That's not the
way
to think. ...
Many
women here have
got-
ten
pregnant
and their
parents
have been
pimps
for them. If
you
want to
follow the
wrong path, go
ahead,
go.".
.. And I
grabbed
a
rope
and hit her. And
she answered
back,
and
again
I
grabbed
the
rope ....
I
gave
her a few
whip-
pings
....
"I had
you
so
you
would
help
me later on in
life,
not
pull
out
your
nails."
...
No,
the
girl
understood. ... I
whipped
her three times. ... She was
gone
for
eight,
fifteen
days. [Then
she
returned].
"Mama." "Has
your coraje
passed?"
"Yes,
mama." "Behave
properly.
. . . You are too old to be hit
...
Look,
daughter,
I told
you,
one
paycheck
is for
you,
and the other is for
me,
so
that
you
will
support
and
help
me." And so she
gave
in.
There is a
contradictory quality
to the words that
Esperanza
chooses to
accompany
the violent lesson that she inscribes on her
daughter's body.
I read them in the
light
of
Esperanza's
notions of a
spiritual
and a sexual
economy. Esperanza
scolds her
daughter
for
not
giving
her
money,
because
part
of the
bargain
between them is
that her
daughter
must retain her value
by
not
putting
herself into
circulation
sexually. Although Esperanza
knows that she must
"pay"
for her sexual
"failing" by seeing
one of her
daughters repeat
her
experience,
she still wants to
fight
to the last to
prevent
this
fate,
which is the common fate of women of her social
class,
from
unfolding. Having
been the
provider, Esperanza
also wants an eco-
nomic return from her
daughter.
This
system
of
exchange
is
part
of a matrilineal
economy,
in which
money
flows
through
the
maternal rather than the
paternal
line.
Money
has a
metaphysical
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Ruth Behar 249
value as a
way
of
showing
that there is a bond between women
from one
generation
to the
next,
a bond that exists
outside,
and in
spite
of,
paternal
control. When her
daughter
threatened to break
this
bond,
Esperanza
had to inscribe it on her
body
so she wouldn't
forget
that
she,
like
Esperanza
herself,
was born of the
inscription
of
pain
on her mother's
body.
A WOMAN WITH A MAN'S NAME
Esperanza's beating
of her
daughter
also encodes her effort to
carry
into
practice
her own
complex
and
contradictory gender
identity. Esperanza
has a keen sense of how she has had to be both
woman and man to her
children,
both mother and
father,
econom-
ic
provider
and
nurturer,
upholder
of the
social-religious
order and
a mirror in which her
daughters
can read a
past
that threatens to
become their future. "All those
years
I have been both man and
woman to
them,
supporting
them,
helping
them
grow up.
... I
go
to work
[in
the
fields].
I use a hoe like a man. I
plant.
I
irrigate....
How
many
women are there in
Mexquitic
who use the
hoe,
the
pick? They
have their
men,
their husbands who
support
them,
suffering
some
rages, perhaps,
but
supported by
their husbands.
And
me,
what man do I
have?
One reads here both a sense of
pride
in an
androgyny
that she
has
managed
to
pull
off and a sense of ambivalence in
being
a
woman who has taken on male roles.
"My
name is San
Benigno,"
she told
me,
"I have a man's name."
(Esperanza
is her middle name
and the name she chose for the
published
version of her
story.)
I
read in
Esperanza's
narrative a desire to be a macha-a woman
who won't be
beaten,
won't
forgive,
won't
give up
her
rage,
a
macha, too,
in the sense of
wanting
to harness a certain male fear-
lessness to meet evil and
danger
head-on. It is this macha
quality
that fascinates her about the
healer/medium, Gloria,
whom she
has known since her mother's illness.
Gloria,
as
Esperanza
told
me,
is
very manly, muy
hombrona. When
Esperanza
took me to
meet her in
1987, I
had to
agree
that Gloria was an
extraordinarily
male
female,
not a
transvestite,
but a woman
who,
like a cha-
meleon,
seen in one
light
was a
woman,
in another
light
a
man,
a
mystery
of
androgyny.
When Gloria
goes
into
trance,
one of the
spirits
that
speaks through
her
is, indeed,
the
symbol
of
manly
banditry
and chaotic
power, namely,
Pancho Villa.
Esperanza
told
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250 Ruth Behar
16.1
;
41?
Esperanza
turns to Pancho Villa
(a contradictory
hero and anti-hero in Mex-
ican historical consciousness who
symbolizes manly
and chaotic
power)
for
valor to
fight
the battles of her
everyday
life as a woman on the
fringes
of
society
and the
capitalist economy.
When the healer and
spirit
medium
Gloria
goes
into trance one of the
spirits
that
speaks through
her is Pancho
Villa,
whose
harsh, violent,
unsanctioned
power
is
sought
out
by
women like
Esperanza.
Here
Esperanza agreed
to be
photographed
outside her house with
the
image
of Pancho Villa from her altar. But the breeze
kept blowing
and we
couldn't
get
the
picture
to hold still for
very long. "Maybe
he's not
happy
about
this,"
she
said,
laughing.
As soon as I
snapped
the shutter some
people
came to
the door and
Esperanza quickly
hid the
picture.
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Ruth Behar 251
x~laa~rapll?IF~:~r~a~?.?????
gf iP ~1~ ?~~a~-: _"p"~nnsF; ?-n~ur.?
i
F
Q`
"?i"
B :2-
a:?:?
"
a
"~r,
t~ ;, r
,~- ~F~?
it
`i
j6^-f~dp~*
ii
B
j
;t
t
Is
1
?$?lr:C~ f y'
cr
??:;~~
r
~:::f"" B
illY: -1? a. ?- ~ffs6~:,.l '~FS~F-T~
5i"
l~:~At?l:~ ~W~B~B~ ? * w~ , ~p~grj?r
E
~8~3
'''~
i/
'I
r
E:
?..t 1
i'
I
~st d
::
1
~b z-- r~r~e :~PP~l~t~WYI~E~~
-r~s~
;L.
"~ ":~??:; :i'
i:?k
M ?;~?i -
i~ i: T
:'* ';i~~.??"IC -s ? ??:
?iF~i~
'""~.-~~: '??
:;:"j.4?I-" l;?:~:~??w-? Ui~l~'~
ii
u ~bE:,r-r;,Ei~,"
Beside her home
altar,
Esperana poses
before her
spiritual protectors,
who in-
clude the
Virgin Mary, Jesus
Christ,
the
Pope,
and Pancho Villa.
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252 Ruth Behar
me that all Gloria's
pregnancies
ended in
miscarriages
because in
her work
battling against
witchcraft she has to take on too much
evil. It is as if her female
body rejects
its own
ability
to create
life,
because she takes on so
many
"male"
qualities
to
fight
evil. In
much the same
way, Esperanza's
children did not survive
infancy,
because the
rage they
suckled with their mother's milk was so in-
tense as to
destroy
them.
It is Gloria who has worked with
Esperanza
in her
struggle
against
evil. On
my
return in
1987,
Esperanza
told me about a
bizarre and
ugly pig
that had
appeared suddenly
one
day
in the
stream
by
her
plot
of land where her lilies
grow;
the
pigs
feet had
been
chopped
off and it
lay
in the
stream,
at first
barely
alive,
and
finally,
dead and
stenching. Esperanza
was convinced that it had
been
deliberately placed
there to ruin her land and she
sought
out
Gloria's
help
to clean and heal it. Gloria told
Esperanza
she would
have to remove the
pig
from the stream
herself,
which
Esperanza
did,
in a
story marvelously
told,
in which the
pig virtually
becomes a demon
against
whom
Esperanza victoriously struggles.
Then Gloria came and "cleaned" the
field,
making
the land burn
from
within,
sprinkling
it with certain herbal
waters,
and
reciting
prayers
over its four corners. This was an
expensive
cure: it cost
Esperanza
240,000
pesos (about
$500 at the
time),
all the
money
she had in the bank. But it was worth is to
her,
she
says,
because
otherwise the land would have
gone
barren.42 It
was worth it, too,
to learn from Gloria who had
placed
the evil on her
land;
it was
her
rejected
son,
Antonio. There is
something
unresolved about
her relation with
Antonio,
and she must continue to
wage
a
cosmological
battle,
with her life and her
money,
to
push
it closer
to some sort of resolution.
STORYTELLING AND REDEMPTION
Toward the end of our conversations in
1985,
Esperanza
said to
me,
"I have made a confession .... Now I should confess with the
priest.
... Now
you carry my
sins
... because it is as if I have been
confessing
with
my
comadre,
instead of with the
priest.
You will
carry my
sins
now,
because
you carry
them
in
your
head. Priests
confess
people, right? ...
Then
they
confess to the
bishops
...
And the
bishops,
with whom? With the
archbishops.
And the
archbishops,
with whom? With God! Now
you, comadre, who are
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Ruth Behar 253
you going
to
get
rid of them with? You tell them somewhere ahead
so someone else can
carry
the burden."
This
very complex
narrative
is,
ultimately,
for
Esperanza,
an ex-
amination of the Christian soul
through
its
inscription
in the oldest
form of
first-person history,
the confession. What does it mean
that
Esperanza
has
given
me a status
analogous
to the
priest
as a
redemptive
listener of her
confession?43
This is a
question
I will
need to
ponder
as I think about the collaboration between us that
produced
this text and the
complex power
relations it no doubt in-
scribes. One crucial
aspect
of our collaboration was that
Esperanza
could offer a different
story
about herself to
me,
the
anthropolo-
gist,
than she could tell
townspeople
in
Mexquitic. Although they
are used to
viewing
her as an
angry
woman abandoned
by
her
husband,
whose
rage exploded
in
witchcraft,
to
me,
a woman
from "the other
side,"
she could tell a different life
story
-that of a
woman who was
wronged
and whom
God,
judging
well and know-
ing
her
faith,
has
helped
to find some
degree
of
triumph
and
justice.
Esperanza's autobiography, by
her own
definition,
is a
spiritual
chronicle of her soul's
journey,
and her stories are therefore "sins"
from which she
hopes
to receive atonement.
Telling
her
story,
turn-
ing
her
rage
into a
story,
is
part
of her
quest
for
redemption,
the
redemption
of her
past
and the
redemption
of the
present
she is ac-
tively seeking
to understand and
forge.
Her
story,
like Christ's
body,
is the
currency
she offers to
pay
for her
redemption.
She told her
story
to me and I have told it to
you.
Now
you
must tell it to some-
one
else,
so that
eventually
the lord and
judge
of all our actions
will hear
it,
too.
NOTES
I am
expanding
the idea in this
essay
into a
book,
tentatively
entitled "The Wrath of a
Woman: A Mexican Life
Story,"
which is under contract to Beacon Press. I have
pre-
sented
different,
developing
versions of this
paper
to the
Ethnography,
Literature,
and
Lunch
Group,
the Women's Studies
Program,
and the Critical
Theory Colloquium,
all at
the
University
of
Michigan,
as well as to the
departments
of
anthropology
at the
University
of
California,
Santa
Cruz,
and at the New School for Social Research. On all
these occassions I have
profited
from the further
readings
of
Esperanza's
text that were
suggested
to me. I am
especially
indebted to the
following people
for their detailed com-
ments and criticism:
James Fernandez,
David
Frye,
Linda
Gregerson,
Susan
Harding,
Janise Hurtig, Seong-Nae Kim,
Barry Lyons,
Bruce
Mannheim,
Sidney
Mintz,
Deborah
Poole,
and Teofilo Ruiz. I thank the
Society
of Fellows at the
University
of
Michigan,
the
Harry
Frank
Guggenheim Foundation,
and the MacArthur Foundation for their
support
of
my
work.
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254 Ruth Behar
1. The critical literature on life
history
is
quite large,
and
growing,
so I will
only
men-
tion as
key
works those of
Sidney
Mintz,
"Anthropological
Interview and the Life
History,"
Oral
History
Review
(1979): 18-26;
Vincent
Crapanzano,
"Life Histories: A
Review
Essay,"
American
Anthropologist
86
(December 1984): 953-60;
Kevin
Dwyer,
Moroccan
Dialogues: Anthropology
in
Question (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1982);
L.L.
Langness
and
Gelya
Frank,
Lives: An
Anthropological Approach
to
Biography (Novata,
Calif.: Chandler &
Sharp, 1981);
Lawrence C.
Watson,
"Understand-
ing
a Life
History
As a
Subjective
Document: Hermeneutical and
Phenomenological
Perspectives,"
Ethos
4,
no. 1
(1976):
95-131;
Lawrence C. Watson and Maria-Barbara
Watson-Franke, Interpreting
Life
Histories: An
Anthropological Inquiry (New
Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers University
Press, 1985); Roger
M.
Keesing,
"Kwaio Women
Speak:
The
Micropolitics
of
Autobiography
in a Solomon Island
Society,"
American
Anthropologist
87
(March 1985): 27-39;
and Susan N.G.
Geiger,
"Women's Life Histories: Method and
Content,"
Signs
11
(Winter 1986):
334-51.
Recent
writings
in the field of life
history
have tended to examine
closely
the context
of elicitation of the life
history
and the nature of the life
history
text as a
literary
and
political enterprise,
connected,
on the one
hand,
to issues of
authorship
and
storytell-
ing,
and on the
other,
to the
asymmetries
of
power stemming
from
gender
and colonial
relations. For
examples,
see Laurel
Kendall,
The
Life
and Hard Times
of
a Korean
Shaman:
Of
Tales and the
Telling
of
Tales
(Honolulu: University
of Hawaii
Press, 1988);
Michael W.
Young,
"'Our Name Is
Women;
We Are
Bought
with Limesticks and
Limepots':
An
Analysis
of the
Autobiographical
Narrative of a Kalauna
Woman,"
Man
18,
no. 3
(1983):
478-501;
Janet
Alison
Hoskins,
"A Life
History
from Both Sides: The
Changing
Poetics of Personal
Experience,"Journal
of
Anthropological
Research
41,
no. 2
(1985): 147-69; Daphne
Patai,
"Constructing
a Self: A Brazilian Life
Story,"
Feminist
Studies 14
(Spring 1988):
143-66.
2.
James
M. Freeman and David L.
Krantz,
"The Unfulfilled Promise of Life
Histories,"
Biography 3,
no. 1
(1979):
11,
1.
3.
James
Clifford,
"On
Ethnographic Allegory,"
in
Writing
Culture: The Poetics and
Politics
of
Ethnography,
ed.
James
Clifford and
George
E. Marcus
(Berkeley: University
of California
Press, 1986),
109.
4.
George
E. Marcus and Michael
M.J.
Fischer,
Anthropology
As Cultural
Critique:
An
Experimental
Moment in the Human Sciences
(Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press,
1986).
5.
Jeff
Todd
Titan,
"The Life
Story," Journal
of
American Folklore 93
(July/September
1980):
290. Also relevant here is
Hayden
White, Tropics of
Discourse:
Essays
in Cultural
Criticism
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1978), 12-134;
Daphne Patai,
Brazilian Women
Speak: Contemporary
Life
Stories
(New
Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers
University
Press, 1988),
17-18.
6.
Sherry
Ortner,
"Theory
in
Anthropology
since the
Sixties,"
Comparative
Studies in
Society
and
History 26,
no. 1
(1984):
159.
7.
Sherry
Ortner and Harriet
Whitehead,
Sexual
Meanings:
The Cultural Construction
of
Gender and
Sexuality (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press,
1981),
5.
8.
Marjorie
Shostak,
Nisa: The
Life
and Words
of
a
!Kung
Woman
(Cambridge:
Harvard
University
Press,
1981).
9.
Arjun Appadurai,
"Is Homo Hierarchichus?" American
Ethnologist
13
(November
1986):
758.
10. Oscar
Lewis,
The Children
of
Sanchez
(New
York: Random
House, 1963),
xxx.
11.
Mary
Louise
Pratt,
"Fieldwork in Common
Places,"
in
Writing
Culture,
45-46.
12.
Young,
480. Also see Hoskins.
13.
Gelya
Frank,
"Finding
the Common Denominator: A
Phenomenological Critique
of
Life
History
Method,"
Ethos 7
(Spring 1979):
76, 77, 72,
83.
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Ruth Behar 255
14.
Clifford,
113-19.
15. Walter
Benjamin,
"The
Storyteller,"
in Illuminations
(New
York: Shocken
Books,
1978): 89,
91.
16.
Mary Jacobus, Reading
Woman:
Essays
in Feminist Criticism
(New
York: Columbia
University
Press, 1986),
23-24.
17.
Arjun Appadurai,
"Center and
Periphery
in
Anthropological Theory," Comparative
Studies in
Society
and
History
28,
no. 2
(1986):
356-61.
18. Watson and
Watson-Franke,
164.
19. In this
vein,
three different recent life histories of
Guatemalan, Bolivian,
and Hon-
duran women follow the
trajectories by
which these
intelligent
and articulate
women - who
already
had
gained
a
reputation
for their activism - awoke to a
heighten-
ed
political
consciousness of
gender,
racial,
and class domination. Their
important
and
moving
accounts are
part
of a
growing
Latin American testimonial literature in which
Marxist-inspired
discourses of liberation
figure prominently.
See Domitila Barrios de
Chungara,
Let Me
Speak: Testimony of Domitila,
a Woman
of
the Bolivian Mines
(New
York:
Monthly
Review
Press,
1978);
Elisabeth
Burgos-Debray, Rigoberta
Menchu: An In-
dian Woman in Guatemala
(New
York: Shocken
Books, 1984);
Medea
Benjamin,
Don't
Be
Afraid,
Gringo,
A Honduran Woman
Speaks
from
the Heart: The
Story
of
Elvia Alvarado
(San
Francisco: Institute for Food and
Development Policy, 1987).
Esperanza's
narrative falls outside of this
emerging
testimonial
tradition;
from a Marx-
ist
perspective,
she still has the wool over her
eyes.
Yet
she, too,
conceives of her
testimony
as
being
about
struggle,
not a Marxist class
struggle,
which is
foreign
to her
rhetoric,
but a
personal struggle against
the men who have
oppressed
her which is
embedded within a
cosmological struggle against
evil.
Telling
her
story,
too,
as in the
case of more
politicized
Latin American
women,
is
part
of her
struggle.
20. Inez
Cardozo-Freeman,
"Games Mexican Girls
Play,"
Journal
of
American Folklore
88
(January/March 1975):
14.
21. Octavio
Paz,
El laberinto de la soledad
(Mexico City:
Fondo de Cultura
Economica,
1981); originally published
in 1950. This
passage
is also cited in
Cardozo-Freeman,
13.
22.
Lewis,
xxx.
23. Chandra
Talpade Mohanty,
"Under Western
Eyes:
Feminist
Scholarship
and Col-
onial
Discourses," Boundary
2
12,
no.
3/13,
no. 1
[1982] (Spring/Fall 1984):
333-58. A
related
critique
can be found in Marnia
Lazreg,
"Feminism and Difference: The Perils of
Writing
As a Woman on Women in
Algeria,"
Feminist Studies 14
(Spring 1988):
81-107.
Lazreg
criticizes the reification of such
categories
as "Middle Eastern women" and
"women of the Arab world." This "abstracted
empiricism,"
as
Lazreg says,
makes it ex-
tremely
difficult for
her,
as an
Algerian
woman,
to write about women in
Algeria,
because "her
space
has
already
been
defined,
her
history
dissolved,
her
subjects objec-
tified,
her
language
chosen for her." As she
notes,
"concrete women
(like men)
live in
concrete societies and not in an
ideologically
uniform
space."
We need to
get beyond
the
Western
gynocentrism
that "has led to an essentialism of otherhood." See
Lazreg,
95-97.
24.
Mohanty,
337. Aihwa
Ong,
an
anthropologist
who has worked with
Malay factory
women,
notes that "the non-Western woman is
presented
as either nonmodern or
modern;
she is seldom
perceived
as
living
in a situation where there is
deeply
felt ten-
sion between tradition and
modernity.
...
Although
a common
past may
be claimed
by
feminists,
Third World women are often
represented
as mired in
it,
ever
arriving
at
modernity
when Western feminists are
already
adrift in
postmodernism."
See Aihwa
Ong,
"Colonialism and
Modernity:
Feminist
Re-presentations
of Women in Non-
Western
Societies,"
in
Inscriptions, Special
Issue on Feminism and the
Critique
of Col-
onial
Discourse,
nos. 3/4
(1988):
86-87.
25. The feminist notion of
counterhegemonic
or
oppositional
structures assumes that
in a
given
time and
setting
there is a male-dominant culture that is
operative, against
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256 Ruth Behar
which a female culture of resistance can be
constructed,
although
not without diffi-
culty
and not without
being paid
for
by
severe
repression.
This model of female
resistance -which
places
women in an active rather than a
passive
role-has
recently
had wide
appeal
in
anthropology,
whether the focus in on
seventeenth-century
Andean
women,
defying
colonial structures of domination
by creating
an
oppositional
set of
cosmologies
and
rituals,
or
late-twentieth-century
Baltimore
women,
forging,
at times
hesitantly,
at time
vehemently,
alternative
ways
of
talking
about the
experiences
of the
female
body
to resist the
denigrating
notions created
by
a male scientific establishment.
See Irene
Silverblatt, Moon, Sun,
and Witches: Gender
Ideologies
and Class in Inca and Col-
onial Peru
(Princeton:
Princeton
University
Press, 1987);
and
Emily
Martin,
The Woman
in the
Body:
A Cultural
Analysis
of
Reproduction (Boston:
Beacon
Press, 1987).
For a re-
cent discussion of these
issues,
see Lila
Abu-Lughod,
"The Romance of Resistance: Trac-
ing
Transformations of Power
through
Bedouin
Women,"
American
Ethnologist
17,
no. 1
(1990): 36,
41-55.
Esperanza's
life
history
narrative can be read in terms of her
struggle
to resist male
dominance and assert her
independence
as a
"newly
born woman." On the domestic
level, women's alternatives to
patriarchal
domination in rural Mexico are few-to re-
main celibate and live
alone;
to have various men and no commitment to
any;
or to
form a female-headed
household;
all these social forms
(except
for
celibacy)
are
associated with lower-class
standing
and sometimes with the "racial" class of "Indian."
Esperanza
at first chooses
marriage,
which for her is a season in
hell,
and ends
up escap-
ing only
to
reproduce
her own mother's life as a "fallen" but at least autonomous woman
at the head of her own household. On a more
explicitly symbolic
level,
her
highly
elaborated
cosmological
views and notions of witchcraft-which are centered in her
continual
struggle against
evil and her sense that all
cruelty
and
injustice
must be
paid
for
dearly
in this life or the next - can be
read, too,
as
forming part
of a Mexican
woman's culture of resistance.
Although
this
particular
feminist
reading
seems to offer
one
possible way
of
reading Esperanza's
narrative,
it
gives
me
pause. Esperanza
certain-
ly
has a sense of herself as
being oppressed
and of
resisting, although
as a
person,
not a
category.
I
wonder, also,
whether an
analysis
based on a female culture of resistance
tends too
much,
again,
toward the view of women's social action as
supplementary,
as
reacting against
a male world rather than as
creatively constructing
a
complete
social
world. In this
particular
case,
there seem to be
yet
other
readings
that have to do with
Esperanza's
construction of a life and a
cosmology
for herself out of narrative
topoi.
26. Edward
Said,
"In the Shadow of the
West," Wedge, Special
Issue on The
Imperialism
of
Representation,
The
Representation
of
Imperialism,
no. 7/8
(Winter/Spring 1985): 4,
5.
27. Linda
Brodkey, "Writing
Critical
Ethnographic
Narratives," Anthropology
and Educa-
tion
Quarterly
18,
no. 1
(1987):
74.
I
am indebted to
Janise Hurtig
for this reference.
28.
James
Clifford,
"Introduction: Partial Truths" in
Writing
Culture,
21.
29. The literature on this
subject
is substantial.
Elsewhere,
I
hope
to consider it in more
detail. Some recent
important
works include Elaine
Jahner,
"Woman
Remembering:
Life
History
As
Exemplary
Pattern" in
Women's Folklore, Women's Culture,
ed. Rosan A.
Jordan
and Susan
J.
Kalcik
(Philadelphia: University
of
Pennsylvania
Press,
1985);
Bar-
bara
Johnson, "My Monster/My
Self,"
Diacritics
12,
no. 1
(1982):
2-10;
Margaret
A.
Lourie,
Domna C.
Stanton,
and Martha
Vicinus, eds.,
Women and
Memory, Special
Issue
of
Michigan Quarterly
Review
26,
no. 1
(1987); Biddy
Martin and Chandra
Mohanty,
"Feminist Politics: What's Home Got to Do with It?" in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies,
ed. Teresa de Lauretis
(Bloomington:
Indiana
University
Press, 1986); Sally
McConnell-
Ginet,
Ruth
Borker,
and
Nelly
Furman, eds.,
Women and
Language
in Literature and
Society (New
York:
Praeger
Publishers, 1980);
Cherrie
Moraga,
"From a
Long
Line of
Vendidas: Chicanas and
Feminism,"
in Feminist Studies/Critical Studies;
Sidonie Smith,
A
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Ruth Behar 257
Poetics
of Women's
Autobiography: Marginality
and the Fictions
of
Self-Representation
(Bloomington:
Indiana
University
Press,
1987).
Since I
began
this
paper
in
1987,
several
new and
exciting
works have been
published, creating
a veritable "boom" in feminist
writing
about women's life stories. See
Carolyn
G.
Heilbrun,
Writing
a
Woman's Life
(New
York:
Norton,
1988);
Shari
Benstock, ed.,
The Private
Self: Theory
and Practice
of
Women's
Autobiographical Writings (Chapel
Hill:
University
of North Carolina
Press,
1988);
Bella Brodzki and Celeste
Schenck, eds., Life/Lines:
Theorizing
Women's
Autobiography (Ithaca:
Cornell
University
Press, 1988);
Personal Narratives
Group,
eds.,
Interpreting
Women's
Lives: Feminist
Theory
and Personal Narratives
(Bloomington:
In-
diana
University
Press,
1989); Joanne
M.
Braxton,
Black Women
Writing Autobiography:
A Tradition within a Tradition
(Philadelphia: Temple University
Press,
1989).
For a
feminist
anthropological critique
of
Clifford,
see Deborah
Gordon,
"Writing
Culture,
Writing
Feminism: The Poetics and Politics of
Experimental Ethnography" (7-24);
and
Kamala
Visweswaran,
"Defining
Feminist
Ethnography" (27-44),
both in
Inscriptions,
Special
Issue on Feminism and the
Critique
of Colonial Discourse. On the "awkward-
ness"
of
anthropology
and feminism as
divergent
discourses,
see
Marilyn
Strathern,
"An
Awkward
Relationship:
The Case of Feminism and
Anthropology," Signs
12
(Winter
1987):
276-92.
30. Domna
Stanton, ed.,
The Female
Autograph: Theory
and Practice
of
Autobiography
from
the Tenth to the Twentieth
Century (Chicago: University
of
Chicago
Press,
1987),
4-5,
14.
31.
Geiger,
338,
348.
32.
Martin,
196. For a
critique
based on the
argument
of
images
and
tropes
in
culture,
see
James
W.
Fernandez,
Persuasions and
Performances:
The
Play of
Tropes
in Culture
(Bloomington:
Indiana
University
Press,
1986).
33.
Martin,
201.
34. As
Carolyn
Steedman notes in her account of her mother's life as a woman from the
English working
classes,
her mother told her life
story
to her to teach her
lessons,
not to
entertain,
and the main lesson was about "all the
strong,
brave women who
gave
me
life..
.and
all of
them,
all the
good
women dissolved into the
figure
of
my
mother,
who
was,
as she told
us,
a
good
mother." See
Carolyn Kay
Steedman,
Landscape for
a Good
Woman: A
Story
of
Two Lives
(New Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers University
Press,
1987),
3.
35.
Kendall,
13.
36.
Sidney
Mintz,
"The Sensation of
Moving,
While
Standing
Still,"
American
Ethnologist
16
(November 1989):
786-96.
37.
See
Kaja
Finkler, Spiritualist
Healers in Mexico: Successes and Failures
of
Alternative
Therapeutics (New
York:
Praeger, 1985), 65;
Paul
Farmer,
"Bad
Blood,
Spoiled
Milk:
Bodily
Fluids As Moral Barometers in Rural
Haiti,"
American
Ethnologist
15
(February
1988):
62-83.
38. Renato
Rosaldo,
"Grief and a Headhunter's
Rage:
On the Cultural Force of Emo-
tions,"
in
Text,
Play,
and
Story:
The Construction and Reconstruction
of Self
and
Society,
ed.
Edward M. Bruner
(Washington,
D.C.: American
Ethnological Society, 1984).
39.
Emily
Martin discusses the
suppressed anger
that women feel as second-class
citizens in U.S.
society, characterizing
this
anger
as
having
social causes rather than
biological
ones.
Focusing
on that
rage
that women
express premenstrually,
she
suggests
that women seek
ways
of
using
this
anger constructively.
Thus she writes of the
possibility
of
being
illuminated with
rage, being bright
with
fury. Finding
the causes at
the root of this
anger,
women can
join together
to turn their
anger
into the source of
liberating change,
rather than
going individually
to a
physician
for a cure. In the same
context,
Martin shows how
rage
links
up
with situations of racial and class
oppression,
citing
Audre Lorde's
sharp
remarks:
"My response
to racism is
anger.
That
anger
has
eaten clefts into
my living only
when it remained
unspoken,
useless to
anyone.
It has
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258 Ruth Behar
also served me in classrooms without
light
or
learning,
where the work and
history
of
Black women was less than a
vapor.
It has served me as fire in the ice zone of uncom-
prehending eyes
of white women who see in
my experience
and the
experience
of
my
people only
new reasons for fear or
guilt."
See
Martin,
135-36.
40. On the
significance
of
pronouns,
see Paul
Friedrich,
"Structural
Implications
of
Russian Pronominal
Usage,"
in
Language,
Context,
and the
Imagination: Essays by
Paul
Friedrich,
ed. Anwar S. Dil
(Stanford:
Stanford
University
Press, 1979).
41. See
Jacobus,
110-36.
42. There is much more to be said about
Esperanza's
relations with the
money
economy
and her ideas about
money.
In her room
(the
walls of which are covered with
pictures
of
Jesus
Christ,
the
Virgin Mary,
various
saints,
and the
pope,
all
forming
an
impressive altar),
there is an
image
of a
young
child, Tomasito,
an
angelito (dead
children are
always
called
"angels"
because,
being
sinless,
they
are
thought
to enter
heaven
directly).
The
picture
of Tomasito is framed with
peso
bills,
which have been
placed
there as
offerings
to
help
her with her
selling.
Tomasito also
speaks through
Gloria when she
goes
into trance and
Esperanza says
he is
"very
miraculous."
43. On the idea of "the
redemptive power
that such derealization of the self in the Other
can
entail,"
and "the
possibilities
for such
redemptive listening,"
see Michael
Taussig,
"The Rise and Fall of Marxist
Anthropology,"
Social
Analysis
21,
no. 1
(1987):
105-6.
I
have
explored my relationship
as confessor to
Esperanza
more
fully
in "A
Story
to Take
across the Border:
Inscribing
a Mexican Woman's
Life,"
forthcoming
in Storied Lives:
Cultural Conditions
of Self-Understanding,
edited
by George
Rosenwald and Richard
Ochberg,
for Yale
University
Press. The
cultural, racial,
and class contradictions of our
work
together,
as well as our mutual
expectations
and frustrations,
are discussed more
fully
in
my forthcoming
book on
Esperanza's
life
story.
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